Unable to Sleep Christmas Eve
Starting at about age three, I never got a second of sleep on Christmas Eve, pondering all the loot that would be in the living room the next morning. In my defense, my dad always made Christmas morning look like a department store showroom. Each of the six kids could count on something outlandish and really-oversized, something that couldn’t be wrapped, so there were water-skis with bows on them, and toboggans and golf clubs and mini-bikes and ping-pong tables and telescopes and one morning there was this huge Glastron ski-boat in the driveway.
Dad was a Depression kid, who made a fair amount of money as a salesman and investor, but he would never buy anything but a Sears or JC Penny suit and he sometimes disputed restaurant bills. He rarely gave himself anything more than a three day vacation and even family vacations were dedicated, about half the time, to making sure he could “call on the trade.” He allowed one indulgence: the outlandish, completely-over-the-top Christmas gift-giving extravaganza.
So being the fifth of six children, I came to have a pretty heavy investment in maintaining the Santa Claus myth. My instincts told me this crazy Potlatch ceremony had something to do with parental glow. We were the show, my younger brother, Scott, and I. “Look what Santa brought!” Dad would exult, and then of course we would rip apart all the packaging, dive into the candy, and squeal with unfeigned delight. We certainly weren’t faking the happiness part. How could anyone NOT be happy with a chemistry set or a Mustang model kit?
But we were faking the Santa part pretty early on, or at least I was. From time to time, someone would propose having Christmas up at my parents’ cabin in Lake Arrowhead, but I roundly rejected that, each time, well into my teens. When assured as a small boy that Santa could find us there, too, I was thinking, “right, but what about the really big stuff? That’s bound to be a dinky package Christmas.” I usually deflected with something a tad dishonest, like, “is it really Christmas if it’s not at home?”
If you have ever marveled at the boundless faith a small child has in almost anything an adult says, I guess the Santa game is understandable. It’s almost as if we borrow a little wonder from them, by making some outlandish claim and basking in the glow of their belief. I confess to having tried this with my grandsons. I’ve pointed to apple trees and claimed a few of them actually grow chocolate bars. This stops working somewhere around four years old, when they begin to understand Grandpa’s con-man sense of humor, but in the interim there’s something thrilling about the magic of such candy-land belief. A child believing that a tree can sprout Hershey bars almost makes it happen, for a second or two.
With Santa however, and the consumer-fest Christmas has come to be, there’s a tangible material interest in the myth and a kind of family faith struggle going on: will it disappoint mom and dad if I tell them I no longer believe in the jolly old chimney-chasing fat man? Am I being tested here? Is dad giving me a smarts test? Am I calling mom and dad a liar? (I’m sure that one gets used between siblings in the throes of Santa disbelief.)
Unlike all the other tall tales dad tries, he actually backs this one up with absolutely real art direction, and, in my case, I never went out of my way to announce disbelief. It just morphed into a common joke we were playing on each other, well into my adolescence, and I imagine that’s the way it works in most families: let’s just live this myth; it’s a kick in the pants, and the little kids are fun to watch. In a sense, too, it’s emotionally and spiritually generous for a parent to give Santa the top billing. It might even teach a child that mom and dad don’t need the credit for making a child happy, and that a child can find contentment from somewhere “out there.” There are good things to be expected from this world, kids — tennis rackets that fly down chimneys!
Having written all of that, I understand there are self-satisfied atheists out there, utterly content to conclude God Himself is a Santa Claus style myth, that the miracles performed by Jesus are just a different kind of tall tale with social utility.
Even if we ignore the numerous ancient texts written by witnesses of those very real miracles, I’m guessing the average atheist has a basic Christmas problem of a different sort: they have a father-son problem. They live in a world where dad and son are big bang accidents, where “love” is physiologically explained as brain chemistry and “sight” is an accident of the radio-magnetic spectrum and a social “myth” is explained by herd-protecting sociological mechanisms.
The same folks who don’t believe in Dad’s jokes, probably don’t believe in his truths either.